Monday, February 28, 2011

Convention Center:Take Cues from 1st Mariner and the Mechanic

The Baltimore Convention Center arguably was the first building marking the renaissance of the Inner Harbor. Having been built in 1979 it predates Harbor Place by one year. It has been expanded several times in its 32 year lifespan adding much needed space. Its location at Howard, Charles, Pratt, and Conway Sts cannot be beaten. Hanover St. runs under it as part of an expansion project. Its footprint encompasses two city blocks and rather than building up for a taller building, its construction went further down into the ground.
It also does a great job in connecting itself to its surrounding buildings for pedestrians via sky walks. So what's my gripe? It's ugly and it doesn't take advantage of its prime location like it could and should. The Convention Center is not alone in its small height, lack of ground floor amenities, and dated design. It is however alone in the fact that aren't any redevelopment plans for it. Both the First Mariner Arena and the Mechanic Opera House are in the same situation but redevelopment interest of both of those properties is a very real possibility. I would say in a better economy I would call it a certainty. But what about the Convention Center, better yet how can such a project be done without Baltimore losing out on Convention Revenue during construction?
As early as 2004 talks for the redevelopment of 1st Mariner Arena have dominated local head lines but little to no action has been taken. At first the City and developers have been scouting out locations for a new Arena and redeveloping the existing site as either Apartments or Offices. Then, in 2008 it was determined that the current Arena site will be that of the new one as well as anywhere from 20,000 to 1,000,000 Square Feet of Retail, either a 300 or 400 room Hotel, a 24 story Office Tower, and a 7 screen movie Theater and a concert venue. These were a sample of proposals submitted from various developers. One of the proposals did envision linking it to the Convention Center which has been the only mention of improvements to the Convention Center at any time.
With Stephanie Rawlings Blake as Mayor, she has been championing relocating 1st Mariner Arena to another site. It's obvious that any redevelopment of 1st Mariner Arena is way off in the future. Further adding to the urgency to the question of losing Convention Revenue it is reported that Baltimore will lose out on events at 1st Mariner Arena during the redevelopment which could take three or four years once it begins.
Now this has avoided the head lines more so than the 1st Mariner Redevelopment proposals. A big reason, I would imagine is that the current building is no longer in use. What I'm referring to is the Mechanic Opera House. The old Mechanic Opera House located at Charles and Redwood is at a great Transit Hub location. The Green Line's Charles Center Stop "built for two" meaning when the Yellow Line is built, it can be a transfer point between the two lines. The Mechanic, just by looking at the above photo is ugly and dated.
David S. Brown Enterprises has committed to redeveloping the Mechanic as a Mixed Use Center with a new Mechanic Opera House, roughly 100,000 Square Feet of Retail, a 160 Room Hotel, and 250 Apartments all housed in a 30 Story Sky Scraper.
There is speculation of whether that site can accommodate another Hotel especially as two new Hyatt Brand Hotels have just opened near by (shown above under construction). I would argue that Office Space would be a better suit to help reestablish that area as the Central Business District.
Now back to the main talking point of this post; The Convention Center. As much as the redevelopment projects I've described have had controversies and pitfalls, I still think it's the best solution for the Convention Center. I think the project should be built in two phases; the portion west of Hanover St. and the portion east of Hanover St.
One way the City can keep its Convention Business is by not disturbing the underground portions of the building. The lobby, which is on the main level will be changed drastically but I haven't seen it used much for the Conventions I've attended. The West Hanover St. Portion will have Ground Floor Retail, an above ground Parking Garage, and a 40 Story Office Tower. The East Hanover St. portion will have additional Ground Floor Retail, an above ground Parking Garage of its own, and a 30 Story Apartment and Condo Tower.
I've elected against having another Hotel because there are three literally engulfing it. Also, that location overlooking the Harbor is lacking Office and Residential Space.
Even though there are flaws and pit falls in the redevelopment of both the 1st Mariner Arena and the Mechanic Opera House, I still believe the Convention Center should follow in their foot steps, after all, what development project isn't filled with flaws and pitfalls?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Owings Mills Town Centre Part II: The Resurection

With the fate of the Mall all but sealed, it's time to explore redevelopment of the entire Owings Mills Town Center Site which includes the Mall and the Metro Station. The Metro Station, does have a massive development pan for its sprawling parking lots. Metro Centre at Owings Mills is set to include 495 Apartments, Office Space, Community College Campus, Library, Hotel, Retail Space, and Parking Garages.
As of right now, all that consists of Metro Centre is the new Parking Garages. Economic restraints have thwarted additional development. Metro Centre, as good as it will be when completed will have no connection to the Mall thus cutting Owings Mills Town Center in half.
General Growth Properties (GGP) have said off the record that they would like to redevelop the Mall. There are no specifics as to what GGP has in mind for redevelopment. Hunt Valley Mall, at the end of the Light Rail, was faced with a similar dilemma in the late 1990s and was redeveloped with a Wegman's Grocery Store and Upscale Retailers in an Open Arie atmosphere. Hunt Valley Town Centre is a huge success, bringing life to a once dead property. Could this be the future for Owings Mills Mall? I think that's the best route to go.
Owings Mills can be redeveloped similarly maintaing existing anchors (J.C. Penney and Macy's), adding new anchors and demolishing the existing Mall. This redevelopment effort will once and for all connect Metro Centre and the new Mall to make way for the long awaited Owings Mills Town Center.
The Parking Lots around the Movie Theater will be redesigned as access roads between the two properties. In addition there will be lighted pedestrian promenades for walk ability between the Mall and the Metro Centre Properties. Red Run Boulevard will receive much needed sidewalks as well as more adequate lighting.
Despite still having a future at the Mall J.C. Penney will be demolished and will be relocated at the back of Mill Run Circle where the current Food Court is. The massive three story Boscov's which is vacant can host an "R US" on each floor Toys R US, Kids R US, and Baby's R US. Each will have a floor.
The Macys will remain the same as will the vacant Lord & Taylor. The vacant Lord & Taylor Space will have a Whole Foods Market occupying it. The elevation of the Lord & Taylor building has would be customers entering on the second floor. Since a two floor Grocery Store is not practical the underground first floor will remain unused.
The Mall space in between Macy's and the old Lord & Taylor will be converted into a Barnes & Noble. The rest of the old Mall will be demolished as an Open Aire Outdoor Multi Story Retail Center with mid market to upscale Retailers.
Although GGP doesn't seem to be renewing leases,I think it would be beneficial to keep all existing Mall Tenants in order for them to be a part of the New Center. Additional Tenants GGP should try to woo include The Apple Store, Hollister, Fashion Bug, Buckle, Vans Store, Ann Taylor Loft, Rainbow, Old Navy, Zumiez, Champs Sports, Best Buy Mobile, Fossil, Sephora, The Sports Page, Wilsons Leather, dElias, Merle Norman, White Barn Candle Company, Zips Dry cleaners, Ross Dress for Less, Sleepys, Lucaya, and Cartoon Cuts.
In addition to luring new stores and retaining existing ones (and renovating them) and would be good for GGP to lure back some stores that have left recently including Spencer's, Hot Topic, Demo Sunglasses Hut, PacSun, Lids, Radioshack, Justice, and Mens Wearhouse Tux.
Also integrated into the new Mall should be the Sit Down Restaurants that are locaated on Red Run Boulevard before entering the Mall Parking Lot.
The Movie Theater, despite being the major blocking point between the Mall and Metro Centre will stay put as it is relatively successful as well as the Greenwich Village Apartments and Townhomes built on the demolition of the Old Sears Building.
Well after 25 long years long years and a life time's worth of failures and pitfalls, Owings Mills Town Center may finally be complete.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Owings Mills Town Centre Part I:The Death of a Mall

Owings Mills was always meant to be something more than a cookie cutter suburb. Over the years it has taken a lot of cues from Columbia, a Master Planned Community in Howard County. The piece de resistance of Owings Mills was and is to be its Town Center. Owings Mills Town Center would include an upscale Mall and the western end of Baltimore's Metro Subway. Over the years many big companies have located their large Offices to Owings Mills and new residential growth has been the fastest and of the highest density in all of Baltimore County. Owings Mills New Town was built just like a Columbia Village and further down Owings Mills Boulevard new development continues. Sadly this growth hasn't made for muh of a Town Center. Lets take a look at Owings Mills today yesterday and see what needs to be done tomorrow to make Owings Mills more than just a cookie cutter suburb. The year was 1986 and Baltimore County's dream of the new Owings Mills Town Center was coming true. Three big projects were completed; I-795, the Northwest Expressway which would reduce traffic congestion on Liberty Road and Reisterstown Road in both the City and the County. The Metro Subway was completed from Owings Mills to Charles Center (eventually it would be expanded to Johns Hopkins Hospital) and Owings Mills Mall, Baltimore County's one and only upscale Mall. Looking back one can already see that doom was not far behind. I-795 was supposed to go inside the Beltway ending at Northern Parkway and continuing through Wabash Avenue. Opposition from Sudbrook Park residents cancelled the City connection but the Metro Subway still runs through that area without the parallel freeway.
Another disappointing setback was the Rouse Company's refusal to have the Subway Stop given direct access to the Mall. The result was the Mall and the Subway stop being near each other as the crow flys but actually getting there is a five minute drive. Walking there would become dangerous due to lack of sidewalks in fact accessing the two properties became so difficult that one has take a bus in between the two.
Be that as it may Owings Mills Mall opened with upscale tenants that were then unknown to the Baltimore Area such as Saks 5th Avenue, Banana Republic, Laura Ashley, Williams Sonoma, Britches, Beneton, and several other upscale Shops, Boutiques, and Eateries. Other anchors were Hechts and Macys. It seems that Owings Mills Mall was a big hit. As new housing and commercial space in the Owings Mills area was built at lightning fast speeds, the Mall's customer base didn't grow with the population. As Towson Town Center lured a Nordstrom and being that Towson is both the County seat and has higher income per capita than Owings Mills, the upscale crown was passed from Owings Mills to Towson.
The biggest sign of trouble came when an employee of Saks Fifth Avenue was murdered while walking on a path way between the Mall and the Subway Station. This created a panic about Mall and that the Subway ran through bad parts of the City which allowed "that element" easy access to the Mall. The path was closed, thus making connections to the Mall and Subway all the more difficult. It also appeared that traffic at the Mall was dropping off and that more and more Shoppers became "window Shoppers" giving the illusion that the Mall was busy when in fact sales said otherwise.
Baltimore's only Saks Fifth Avenue pulled out of the Mall in 1996 and JcPenney, a store with several locations in the Baltimore Area replaced it. The departure of Saks allowed for a re branding of the Mall as more mid market. The Rouse Company made a fatal mistake during this re branding process; the expanded the Mall.
Two new anchors were added behind the Main Entrance as was a new wing. Lord & Taylor opened in 1998 and almost as soon as the ribbon was cut, low sales made it into a bargain hunter's dream. Sears opened with a new wing that never really filled up with stores. At around the turn of the century, both Lord & Taylor and Sears decided that to stay profitable, they'd have to close underperforming stores. Both Owings Mills locations were on the list of closures despite only being open for a couple of years. I do think that if given a chance those stores could have succeeded.
By 2002 both new stores were empty as was the new wing. Efforts to fill these vacant Department Stores proved unsucessful and more and more storefronts became vacant. In the Department Store world, Macy's bought Hechts which meant that another Department store was to become vacant in 2006.
Boscov's, looking to make its way into the Baltimore Market took over the vactated spaces in Owings Mills, White Marsh, and Marleys Station. In 2008, Boscov's filed for Chapter 11 and you guessed it, Owings Mills was one of the stores slated for closure. By now the Sears Building had been demolished to make way for Apartments and Rental Town Homes. I forgot to mention that as part of this expansion a Movie Theater was added, the Movie Theater further blocked access from the Mall to the Subway Station.
Well in 2011, the mall only has a handful of stores left with a capacity of nearly 150. The Mall's current owners General Growth Properties (GGP) are emerging from Chapter 11 Bankruptcy which would have hindered any redevelopment for the Mall. It doesn't appear that GGP is renewing leases or updating its tenant roster on the internet.Anyway, I think redevelopment is the only savior for this Mall. Back at the Metro Station the vast parking lots will soon make way for long awaited TOD known as Metro Centre at Owings Mills. Maybe the redveloped Mall and the new Metro Centre will become one big super development known as Owings Mills Town Center. Stay tuned for my redevelopment plans.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Yellow Line & Charles Street: Same Area Different Purposes

I have argued to keep the Yellow Line a valid and current piece of Baltimore's Regional Rail Plan for what seems like an eternity. I have also to a lesser extent been on board for the creation of the Charles St. Trolley. So which do I want? There are those who think it's either one or the other and because of cost, the Charles St. Trolley would always win. Why should it? I mean why should the two compete? Can't the two exist together? I think so.
With the existing Central Light Rail Line, Downtown, with both new lines built will have three north-south lines serving it. Now I consider the Downtown boundaries to MLK Boulevard to the west and President St. to the east, pretty much every north south thoroughfare is congested. Now each of the three lines will ultimately end in different places and will vary in length.
The Charles St. Trolley and the Yellow Line, at least for a short period of time will be side by side. The Yellow Line will go underneath both Charles St. and Light St. at the Charles Center Green Line Station where space was made available for a transfer line when it was built. I consider the smartest pre-planning in modern Baltimore Transit History.
Now does the current Light Rail go, and where will the Charles St Trolley and Yellow Line go? Well, the Light Rail goes from Cromwell Station in Glen Burnie to Hunt Valley. Past Downtown, it travels I-83 through the JFX Valley, Hampden/Woodberry, Mt. Washington, Timonium ending in Hunt Valley.
It has two branches one for BWI Marshall Airport, and another for Penn Station. The creation of the Yellow Line will make these a part of that line making the Central Light Rail Line a straight shot from Cromwell Station to Hunt Valley. Short term southern expansions would include the redeveloping "Glen Burnie Town Centre" on Crain Highway. Long Term would include traveling down I-97/Ritchie Highway with stops at Marley Station (Pasadena), Greater Baltimore Washington Medical Center, Servena Park, and finally ending in Annapolis.
The Yellow Line will expand southbound from the Light Rail Line's BWI Marshall Airport Branch for stops at the BWI MARC Station, Baltimore Commons, Arundel Mills, Dorsey MARC, Snowden River Parkway and Route 108, East Columbia, and finally ending at Columbia Town Center (West Columbia pictured abobe) where it will eventually meet the DC Metro's Green Line.
On the other end from Camden Yards, it will go northeast along Conway St. for an Inner Harbor Stop, then to the Charles Center Green Line Station for two, a stop for Mercy Hospital, City Hall, and the Court House. It will continue along Calvert St. for a Mount Vernon Stop traveling north to be replace the Light Rail's Penn Station Stop that will also serve the up & coming Station North Community.
I should also point out that the Yellow Line will be needed if the JFX were torn down to relieve the additional traffic congestion. The two projects should be funded as one.
Back to the Yellow Line, since splitting from the Light Rail Line at Camden Yards, it has mirrored the proposed Charles St. Trolley Route, well that ends now. The Trolley, as its name suggests, will continue along the Charles St. Corridor. The Yellow Line, past North Avenue will serve the ailing Greenmount Avenue/York Road Neighborhoods. First stop 25th St. at the redevelopment hungry Neighborhoods of Barclay and East Baltimore Midway (pictured above).
Then, it's off to the old Memorial Stadium grounds where redevelopment has uplifted the area after the demolition of the Os former home. Waverly is perhaps the best area east of Greenmount Avenue.
Continuing up York Road we come to the Pen Lucy/Govans area. This area is improving one house rehab at a time. Hopefully the Yellow Line will inspire the redevelopment of the blighted Old York Road which is holding the area back (pictured above).Next we come to Belvedere Square, perhaps the best North Baltimore has to offer. Now we cross the County Line into Rodgers Forge. This well perserved Row House Suburb is bursting at the seams as long time Home Owners sell to young families. This has spawned the construction of West Towson Elementary School to relieve over crowding at Rodgers Forge. Next we come to College drive which will erve GBMC, Mount St. Joseph Medical Center, Shepard Pratt, and Towson University. Yep, this stop's a big one.
Finally the Yellow Line will end at Towson Town Centre where in its vicinity redevelopment has taken the area by storm.
Last we come to the Charles St. Trolley, unlike the two lines discussed earlier in the post, the Trolley will be very local and focused. I look at it as a means for College Students in the area (of which there are many) to get from School/Class to the clubs down by the Harbor without taking their cars. I know that's a narrow minded view of the Trolley but that's what comes to mind when I think of it. Although I find its purpose to be limiting, I do believe it will play a huge part in relieving traffic congestion.
The Trolley will start at Charles and Conway and make its northbound through, Charles Center, Mt. Vernon, the Midtown Donut, Station North, and Charles Village. In the process it will run by the following Colleges, UMB, MICA Art Institute, UMB Mount Royal, and Johns Hopkins Homewood. Also major users of the Trolley could perhaps be workers at Univeristy of Maryland Medical Center and Union Memorial Hospital. The Trolley will have transfer points where there are stops for other rail lines. Its southbound track will be St. Paul St.
Like I said, I have argued for keeping the Yellow Line in the general discussion as the Charles St. Trolley has been all but replacing it. For people who think I'm crazy for saying both when asked the question; "one or the other" I invite them to read this post and they will see the nececity of them both and the differing functions they will serve.